Friday, 10 April 2015

8 years of blogging!

Yep, dear blog readers, today is 8 years since I started blogging at Stuck-in-a-Book. Every year it comes around more quickly, and I seem to be running through the numbers at a rate of knots.

Thanks so much to all the lovely people who read this, particularly those who have been reading for many years. I really do appreciate your comments, emails, links, and friendship - and, of course, your blogs (for those of you who blog).

As you read this, I am off on a 'plane to America, visiting my friend in Washington DC. While there I am planning on meeting up with FIVE bloggers, three of whom I haven't met before. I'm not back til the 20 April, so you may hear their reports before you hear mine - and I am intending on returning to Blighty with bagfuls of books, of course.

See you in a couple of weeks!

Thursday, 9 April 2015

NYRB Classics: recommendations?

Loving Alfred and Guinevere and Skylark makes me think... are there little-known NYRB Classics that you would especially recommend?

I find that their list is extremely varied, and there are lots that I probably wouldn't bother picking up - but I am besotted with many of their authors, including Tove Jansson, Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth Taylor, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Rose Macaulay. And then things like those two novels aforementioned that I knew nothing about before being seduced by those NYRB covers. OH, and the extraordinary The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton.

(I have stolen Thomas's image of NYRBs again, because I love it so much. Sorry, Thomas. And thanks.)

So please, dear NYRB fans, let us know your recommendations in the comments, please!

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Alfred and Guinevere by James Schuyler

There is something rather wonderful about choosing and reading a book while knowing very little about it. I knew nothing at all about James Schuyler or his 1958 novel Alfred and Guinevere when I picked it up in Hay on Wye last year - all I knew was that I loved NYRB Classics (and this one, from 2001, shows just how timeless their designs are - looking beautifully fresh 14 years later. Even though I can't find out what the painting is). Not being a poetry buff, I didn't realise that that was the arena in which Schuyler made his name - but I do now know that he had a knack with words that was rather extraordinary.

The eponymous Alfred and Guinevere are children who are sent to stay with their grandparents. Most of this slim novel is given in their dialogue, excerpts from Guinevere's diary, and letters that she writes. The novella probably says their ages, but I must have flown past that section. Guinevere is the elder; Alfred is pretty unschooled in reading and writing.

Undoubtedly the greatest achievement in this novel is Schuyler's ability to capture the cadences of children's conversation, particularly the back-and-forth of sibling arguments, which leap from battle to truce to battle, weaving in long-standing disagreements, I-know-something-you-don't-know novelties, and (most beautifully captured of all) snatches stolen from the conversation of adults around them, and novels the children probably shouldn't be reading. This is a trick Schuyler uses throughout: they borrow idioms and metaphors that sound extremely out of kilter with their childish bickering, because - of course - that is exactly what children do do. Perhaps particularly those who feel adrift from the adults around them, and uncertain of the events that have occurred (more on that soon). Here's an example from a letter Betty writes to Guinevere, her erstwhile friend:
Dear Guinevere,Thanks for the note. It is a shame boys make so much trouble and go around tattle-taling and spoiling intimate friendships. Of course your knocking me down like that made a permanent wound in my feelings which is slow to heal but it is not you at bottom I blame it is them. It was not me or Lois who told her mother or my mother what my mother told your mother she said you said. It was Stanley who told his mother and she told the other mothers. So you see how it goes.It is a shame what happens but I guess you have to take it as it comes and not spoil your life with vain regrets.More in sadness than in hate,Elizabeth Carolanne House
And there is this...
"You're scared to walk across the bridge and look. I can tell you're scared when you try to look like Mother.""I'll run away and leave you in the gathering gloom at the mercy of reckless drivers and we'll see who's scared.""I'll throw myself in the gutter and get sick and die, then you'll be sorry.""No I won't. I'll go to your funeral and say, 'Doesn't he look sweet in his coffin,' and cry, then everybody will feel sorry for me and give me things. I'll wear a black dress with black accessories and a hat with a black veil. Black is very becoming and makes you look older. Then I'll take your insurance money and go on a trip and meet a dark, interesting stranger."
Lest you think that this is a cutesy book, I should say that - behind the well-observed dialogue - there is an indistinct darkness. I suppose Guinevere's macabre callousness might already dismiss ideas of Brady Bunch levels of cuteness, but there is a much darker subtext. The children briefly discuss having found a dead body. At one very poignant moment, Guinevere blurts out "I'm sorry Daddy hit you", but it is not explored further than that. Schuyler gives just enough shade to make clear that all is not sunny.

But, at the same time, this is a very funny book. It is the sort of humour that stems almost entirely from acute observation - and that, if coupled with a slight (slight) heightened tone, is probably the thing I find most amusing. In only 126 pages, Schuyler combines humour and darkness in a really exceptional way.

Alfred and Guinevere is deceptively quick and simple. But, oh, there is an awful lot going on - not least an authorial restraint and style that I heartily applaud. If I had to pick any other novel that it reminded me of, I would pick another NYRB beauty - Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi.

Have you read this? Do you know anything about James Schuyler? I now want to find out much more!

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Shiny New Books - one year old today!

I can't quite believe it, but Shiny New Books is a whole year old. Issue 5 is published today - which is, exactly to the day, one year since Issue 1.

It's live! Go and explore; you'll find a lot to love, and I'll throw out some highlights over the next few days. (EDIT: actually it might be a while before I manage to post those links, for reasons that will be disclosed...)

As always, many thanks to my wonderful co-editors Annabel, Victoria, and Harriet - and our latest addition, Jodie.

We're really proud of it, and I hope you enjoy it. The colours have come full circle and we're back to purple and gold!

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Happy Easter!

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

I hope you're all having a wonderful weekend - and a Bank Holiday weekend if you happen to be in one of the countries that does that. The Shiny New Books editors are finishing off preparation for Issue 5 (coming out in a couple of days) - marking a whole year since our first issue appeared, believe or not.

And I put aside 11 novellas to read this weekend. I have so far read only one and a half...

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Very exciting Milne in the post

I wrote a while ago about my love of A.A. Milne, and how he had been the perfect author to set me off on a love of book hunting - being very prolific, with books ranging from in print to impossible-to-find. It's rather wonderful (if sometimes frustrating) that, more than 12 years after I first started avidly collecting Milne books, there are still some that I've never seen copies of online.

One of his later plays, Other People's Lives, was in the category until recently. It's not even in the Bodleian Library. I've had 'want' alerts at for more than 10 years, and it's never appeared there... until a couple of weeks ago!  And here it is...

It looks very ordinary there, but you can't imagine (or perhaps you can) how thrilled I am to have it in my possession now. And it was still cheaper than your average new hardback (somebody obviously wasn't aware of its scarcity... or perhaps they thought nobody would care.)

Like a few other of Milne's plays, it was never published for readers. The only versions ever made were acting editions published by Samuel French, intended to be used by theatre companies, amateur dramatics societies, etc. This one obviously found its way to Waltham Forest Libraries at some point, but (having not been taken out since 1965, according to the stamps on the sheet inside) was put out for sale.

And is now in the hands of the person who will perhaps appreciate it the most!

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Apricots at Midnight by Adèle Geras

My housemate Melissa (not to be confused with a different housemate Melissa, who has also written the odd book review for SIAB) wanted to borrow a book, and ended up with one I was given but have yet to read - Apricots at Midnight (1977) by Adèle Geras. As always, I encourage my friends to write reviews for SIAB. This is seldom taken up, but thankfully Melissa said yes, and wrote this fab review! Do (as always) make my guests feel welcome in the comments section... and enjoy the review:

Small pleasures. I picked this book off Simon’s shelf at his first words of description, without waiting for the rest: ‘That one is a children’s book.’ I love books written for children; the unpredictable-but-safe plotlines, the freshness of the detail, the firing of the imagination; and this one did not disappoint.

Actually, this is the sort of book that as a child I didn’t really appreciate. It’s one of those books which describes someone’s childhood memories, and why, I would wonder, should I read about another person’s everyday life when my own was so interesting and there were plenty of books about daredevil escapades, fantastic worlds, or true-to-life explorations? It’s only through growing up (a little bit) that I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of the everyday and of simple, happy memories.

This book is built around a quilt; a quilt sewn together, patch by patch, by the narrator’s elderly relative Aunt Pinny, from fabrics picked up throughout her life. Each patch is tied to a story, the cue to a memory of long ago. The apricots of the title relate to the first ball Pinny attended, a little girl sneaking down to join her working mother for a midnight snack.

A child’s perspective is so different: everything is fascinating, but nothing is truly surprising. For Pinny, the line between make-believe and reality is not particularly important; there’s no disappointment when the adventurer Major Variana admits his limp was gained by dropping a crate of oranges on his foot rather than being bitten by a crocodile, and no questioning of his reassurance ‘That was the only made-up story, I promise you’. In her old age, Pinny retains this childlike ability to take her experiences at face value, so that the tone of the book hinges slightly on the fantastic.

The individual salient events, people and places slowly build a picture of the beauty of Pinny’s daily life. The emergent character in the backdrop is her mother: thrown from prosperity at the death of her husband, and fighting to build a life for herself and her daughter on the strength of her dressmaking skills. She is the constant in Pinny’s life, tying the book together, providing stability and a structure. It is she who first suggests the quilt and teaches a tiny Pinny to hold a needle and make her first stitches. Like a fairy godmother, she can always produce something from whatever nothing is to hand: a garden for a convalescent Pinny from scraps of flowered fabric; an extra sixpence when Pinny’s allowance isn’t quite enough for the music box she wants to buy; an overnight job at Mrs Triptree’s ball so that Pinny can see the ladies in their beautiful costumes.

There is a chance for Pinny to be involved in everything she does – sitting in on meetings with unusual and exotic guests, contributing a not-so-successful stuffed zebra to the soft toy stall at the church fair, cutting out the jam tarts for a picnic. Her tears and remorse on the day she is delayed picking Pinny up from school, and gratitude to the teachers who took the child home for tea and entertained her, is a moment of revelation for Pinny:
It occurred to me then that I had not once, even in the worst depths of my misery, thought what it must have been like for her, knowing she would not be at the school gates, knowing that she was making me more and more unhappy every minute she was not there.
Her selfless love and care for Pinny comes out at every turn. On one occasion, she covers for her daughter, losing a rich client in the process, when the little girl recovers a roll of cloth that she believes belongs to the future king and queen of Borneo but was actually the client’s curtains. I fell in love with her at the point when she stretches a tiny budget to provide Pinny with bulbs for her garden:
I do not remember that we had trouble finding the money. I was too excited at the prospect of my own garden. But now I can see that my mother must have gone without something she needed or wanted, in order to save what was necessary.
Her generosity is not reserved for her daughter alone: when Pinny asks a visiting gentleman at a loose end to stay, she hesitantly but not unwillingly opens her home to him until he is able to find his feet again.

To my delight, one of the stories turns out to take place in Oxford. This is Pinny’s first taste of what she calls ‘the country’. ‘”It’s not the proper country, Pinny,” my mother warned me. “Oxford is a large town, and quite near.”’ Unperturbed, Pinny’s imagination runs wild: ‘Milkmaids in mob caps and farmers in knee-breeches, small houses with roses growing round the doors, stiles, carthorses, shepherds coming down from the hills at sunset, wooden bridges curving over brooks.’

The reality is quite different, of course, but turns out to be no less exciting. Not least, St Giles’ Fair, ‘the most splendid, exciting, glorious fair in the whole world’, as Pinny’s Oxfordian friends, Miles and Kate, delightedly inform her. The description is priceless, a snapshot of the fair a century before I experienced it. Some things are quite different – the long-banned prizes of live goldfish, the penny charge for each game, the steam powering the organs. The exhilaration of the fair, however, is unchanged over generations, and the bright colours of the rides which draw the children’s attention, the reckless spending on hopeless attempts at skewering a prize, the loud music and bustle of the crowd, sound tantalisingly familiar.

Ten patches, ten stories; yet a quilt is so much bigger than that. I’m left wondering what else is in there; the stories that Pinny would not tell till her listener was older, the ones she perhaps would never tell at all?